Running through the wilderness to find Neuville

Our team on the ground had a job on their hands to find Neuville and his stricken Hyundai

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We weren’t sure what we were about to find.

We knew Thierry Neuville had gone off and out of the lead on Croatia Rally. Thanks to some expert planning and coordination between Colin Clark and DirtFish videographer Eliot Barnard, we knew where Neuville’s Hyundai had come to a stop as well.

But we didn’t know if Neuville would still be there.

All of the effort, it could have been for nothing.

Finding a World Rally Championship driver on the scene of their accident is no easy task, trust me.

I’m still a relative newbie to the WRC service park – Croatia is just my fourth event on the ground – so I’ve not been on this journey so many times. But Colin and Eliot, they knew what they were doing. And sprung into action immediately.

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As soon as we saw that Neuville had gone off, action stations were engaged. The newsdesk team back at base pinpointed his location on the tracker, and Eliot dived into the maps to work out what possible routes we had to get to him – without of course using any of the special stage.

If we drove on the stage we would miss him as the recovery truck can transport him out of the stage as soon as it’s over, and Hyundai then collects the i20, Neuville and Martijn Wydaeghe and takes them back to Zagreb.

We had to get inventive instead.

“There’s a big gold star for you if you get this right,” Colin declared to Eliot, who is vying to become unofficial ‘chief planner’ this weekend.

Eliot had found two routes. One looked faster, but we couldn’t tell how accessible it was going to be.

The sudden drop off the main road and onto a beaten track suggested plan A may have been a gamble too bold.

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Off we went, testing our Dacia Duster hire car to the limit as Colin – just for a moment – became McRae and not Clark.

Tricky corners, rough surfaces, even a deep puddle resembling more of a water crossing couldn’t stop us as we threaded our way towards an exclusive interview.

The determination was steely. We were going to do it.

Until we weren’t.

Negotiating around a pack of parked cars, the ruts began to deepen. The surface got muddier. The challenge got greater. The towel had to be thrown in – we had no choice.

Turning around and heading back down the way we came to trial route B wasn’t a valiant moment. Determination was still as high but hopes were perhaps dashed.

Off we went, testing our Dacia Duster hire car to the limit as Colin - just for a moment - became McRae and not Clark. Luke Barry

We would soldier on, but every lost second counted.

However, like in all good Hollywood movies, it was at this point that we were rewarded with a stroke of luck.

Approaching the junction back to the main road, a van towing a trailer drove right past us. And it just so happened to have ‘ALZ’ at the start of its registration plate.

What does ALZ mean? Alzenau.

What does Alzenau mean in our world? Hyundai.

“Let’s just follow him.”

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So we did – but to his credit Eliot had the route crafted out perfectly anyway, which was just as well as we would soon be waving goodbye to our beacon of light.

As the Hyundai recovery team headed for stage-end, we veered right onto our chosen access route to try and intercept Neuville.

Faced with a stream of spectator cars who were travelling against us, trying to leave the stage, again things were against us. But we had to at least give it a go.

So the Dacia was parked up and we set off on foot to walk the couple of kilometers back to where Neuville’s dream had turned into a nightmare.

But, with the stage still live, we had to get adventurous. No walking on the road – we would be walking in the wilderness instead.

I was bringing up the rear as my colleagues morphed into mountain goats, leaping through the shrubbery and making a mockery of the challenging topography.

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Spot the guy who hadn’t really done this before.

After some adventurous ducking and daring through the forest, we made it to a clearing where the battle plan was altered.

A friendly marshal informed us there were only three cars left to pass, and that meant the sweeper would soon be through. That meant we could walk on the road.

I couldn’t really hide my relief.

But the new challenge was the aforementioned race between us and the recovery teams. The stage being cleared meant they’d be heading in to collect the stricken Hyundai.

We were still over one kilometer away, so there was nothing for it. We had to run.

Calves on fire, breathing getting heavier, I was at least committed to the cause. We all were. Luke Barry

Glancing down at my smart watch to discover my heart was beating at 186bpm was a rather sharp reminder that I’ve got some serious work to do on my fitness.

Apparently a life of sitting at a laptop and eating chocolate bars has its side effects.

Calves on fire, breathing getting heavier, I was at least committed to the cause. We all were.

Eliot, the youngest and fittest of us, had made a bit of a break for it. He turned back and uttered two extremely important words.

“He’s here!”

Auto-pilot took over.

Cresting the hill to find a swarm of people crowding around the broken Hyundai, immediately we needed two things. An interview for YouTube and our website and pictures of the car for social media and DirtFish Live Center.

The latter responsibility fell to me. Calves still burning, the phone was out the pocket and capturing anything it possibly could. I’m an introverted person – probably too shy for a journalist – but I was barging in anywhere I could.

We were there just in time to witness the crowd – led and orchestrated by Neuville – heaving the i20 onto the back of the flat-bed with some difficulty given the damage to the rear-left.

Neuville was gracious enough to offer us a few words, but the pain could not be disguised from his face.

“We had a mission this weekend,” he said, “and we were on it.

“But obviously…”

It just wasn’t meant to be.

As journalists, we are – and absolutely have to be – impartial. We don’t have favorites, and we don’t have preferred outcomes.

But the thought of Hyundai winning this weekend – after all that’s happened in the last nine days – was just so heart-warming. Neuville’s exit from the lead means it’s very likely a Toyota or an M-Sport Ford will win in Croatia instead.

As Neuville and Wydaeghe hopped into the recovery truck with the wounded Hyundai now safely onboard, I was left with those thoughts as we slowly walked back and sent in our findings to the team back home.

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But it was a rather pleasant wander, stopped first by a family in the small village of Hribac and then by our new friend Alan who, along with his mates, made us each a gorgeous sausage roll on the barbecue.

We could’ve stayed there all day, but after a half hour of eating, drinking and conversing we knew we had to get back on the road.

Neuville will, too.

More so than on any other weekend, this one will sting. But his leadership in such a tough time has been exemplary, and he – and Hyundai – will bounce back again stronger.